Whistleblower Priest Returned to Ministry

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by David Nussman  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  June 8, 2020   

Moves to parish in another state

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GAYLORD, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A priest who was punished for blowing the whistle on a vicar general is now returning to active ministry.

Father Matthew Cowan, a priest in the diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, complained of sexual harassment by then-vicar general Fr. Dennis Stilwell — filing the complaint in August 2018. Father Cowan went public with the allegations in December 2018, citing the diocese's failure to act on his claims.

In response to his going public, Gaylord's Bp. Steven Raica put Fr. Cowan on paid administrative leave in January 2019.

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Bp. Steven Raica, Gaylord

Bishop Raica also barred him from offering the sacraments publicly.

But now, Fr. Cowan is returning to public ministry at a parish in Kansas.

Gaylord Diocesan Watch (GDW) broke the news on Friday, June 5, saying in a statement, "Fr. Matthew Cowan is returning to active ministry. The announcement came in the May 31, 2020 bulletin of St. Joseph Church, Hays, Kansas, where he will be parochial vicar."

According to GDW, the restrictions Bp. Raica had imposed on Fr. Cowan amounted to "virtual house arrest." 

"He was removed from his residence and forced to live in his [parents'] basement and say Mass in private," GDW states.

In addition to Fr. Cowan's complaint, another person accused Fr. Stilwell of inappropriate touching.

In late March of 2019, a diocesan review board found the charges against Fr. Stilwell non-credible. But GDW claims the review process was shrouded in mystery, and several members of the review board were "diocesan personnel that were under the control and management of Fr. Stilwell."

He was removed from his residence and forced to live in his [parents'] basement and say Mass in private.

Furthermore, a laicized ex-priest accused of sexually abusing a minor, James Holtz, worked for years at a parish under Fr. Stilwell. 

Stilwell retired as vicar general last year, and according to GDW "was given a farewell party attended to by Bp. Raica."

"Father Stilwell remains in ministry," the group stated, "with full retirement benefits, as sacramental minister for the Catholic parishes in Boyne City and Boyne Falls."

Catholics Cheer the Outcome

Local faithful Catholics are glad that Fr. Cowan is returning to active ministry.

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Richard Brenz, a retired ophthalmologist and GDW's spokesperson, told Church Militant on Friday, "GDW is ecstatic that Fr. Cowan can finally return to his God-given ministry. We are filled with awe that two years of unjust retribution against a faithful priest comes to an end in a wonderful and mysterious way."

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Fr. Dennis Stilwell

He went on to say, "Fr. Cowan's final vindication, however warranted and deserved, remains overshadowed by diocesan policies and procedures which thrive and metastasize in the darkness of subterfuge and obfuscation. Only sanitization by the powerful light of God can solve this problem."

Another Catholic involved in GDW, Bill De Lyon, stated in an e-mail Friday, "When this ordeal began, Fr. Matthew knew if he was to speak out, it could cost him dearly, even his priesthood, and it did for approximately one and a half years."

"He is the type of priest that we should all emulate," De Lyon continued. "He not only talks the talk but walks the walk."

"Our family and our group (GDW) will always be grateful for his example of what a priest should be," he wrote.

He is the type of priest that we should all emulate. He not only talks the talk but walks the walk.

Though glad that Fr. Cowan has been restored to ministry, some faithful in Gaylord are disappointed he will be living in another state, about 1,000 miles away.

"I know that the people that know Fr. Cowan have contacted me," De Lyon commented, "and are so happy for him, but are sorry we are losing a great priest from our diocese. Many want to figure out a way to show their appreciation for their hometown hero."

GDW's statement remarked, "Unfortunately, the diocese of Gaylord will be losing a good priest. The good news is that he will return to living out his sacred vocation."

"Since he is listed as being 'on loan' from the diocese of Gaylord, it is possible that could return in the future," GDW's posting continued. "For that we can be filled with joy and offer thanksgiving to the Holy Spirit."

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